Experienced Toastmasters know the importance of starting a speech by capturing the audience’s attention—but effective speech introductions do much more than that. A speech introduction has five important functions: grabbing the audience’s attention, stating the topic, explaining its relevance, establishing credibility and previewing the main ideas you’ll be speaking about.
To win over an audience, first learn how to bait your hook and then lure them in!
Part 1: Grab the audience’s attention with a narrative hook
When the first sentence rolls off your tongue, you want audience members to sit up in their chairs, lean forward and think to themselves, Oh, this is going to be good! That won’t happen if you start with a predictable and dull opening sentence: My name is Lisa Marshall and I am going to talk to you about …
Instead, you should immediately pique the audience’s interest with a narrative hook. Choose from many methods: humor, a startling statistic, a prop, a quote, an anecdote, a short recording, a hypothetical example, an illustration, a question, a reference to recent news, a reference to the occasion or a callback to a preceding speech. When choosing your attention-getter, keep in mind that it also needs to correspond to your purpose, be relevant to the topic and be concise.
For example, a surprising statistic conveys a tone of importance that fits a serious topic. Let’s say you’re giving a speech about concussions to a group of parents. Did you know 40% of athletes with concussions return to play before they are well enough to do so, putting them at risk for additional injury?
Watch 2016 WCPS Darren Tay as he grabs the audience's attention with a prop for visual humor.
Part 2: State the topic
As soon as you have their attention, reveal the topic or purpose of your speech using direct, simple language. Whether or not your child plays sports, concussions are the most common form of brain injury and we need to take them seriously.
For many speakers, explicitly stating the topic feels like stating the obvious; however, if you don’t do it, you run the risk of being misunderstood. Remember, although you’ve been working on the speech for hours, days or even weeks, your listeners are hearing these words for the first time. Don’t leave them guessing.
A strong, clear topic statement shows you have a plan and are prepared to talk.
Part 3: Explain relevance of topic
Once the audience is sure of the topic, don’t assume they will understand why it’s relevant to them. Just because you think it’s an important topic doesn’t mean your listeners will make the connection to their needs. Always assume your audience will require a bit of convincing. In a short statement, explain why this particular audience should care about this particular topic. Give them at least one strong reason to pay attention and listen.
A concussion is complex and has few visible symptoms, which means school staff may not recognize when it happens. However, by educating ourselves on the signs and symptoms, we, as parents, have the ability to advocate for the health and safety of our children.
Learn how 2015 WCPS Mohammed Qahtani made his topic relevant by demonstrating the power of words in his introduction.
Part 4: Establish credibility
Now that you have explained why they should listen, you need to ensure your audience members know why they should trust and listen to you. If you were not formally introduced before the speech, this is the time to briefly share your experience and background. Even if you were introduced, it’s still a good idea to remind the audience of your related expertise. Positive perceptions of competence build speaker credibility.
For over five years, I’ve been working as a volunteer educator for Concussion.org, an organization dedicated to providing accurate, vetted, reliable information on concussion prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. We serve not only parents, like you, but also athletic programs and healthcare professionals around the world.
One important note: If you are speaking to a hostile audience or you are presenting difficult news, don’t focus on competence; instead, it is much more important to establish goodwill, another aspect of credibility. You’ll need to show you care and have only the best of intentions for the audience.
Part 5: Preview the main ideas
The final piece of your introduction should preview or foreshadow the main points. The preview is usually a single sentence (but it can be a few sentences in longer speeches) that tells the audience what’s to come. Your goal is to verbally provide the structure using connector words, like “first, “next” and “finally” so that your listener knows how to categorize the information being delivered to them. Keep in mind that verbal presentations don’t have visual cues of structure like section headers in a written document; therefore, it’s important to provide a verbal preview to help your listeners create a mental map of the organizational structure.
See how 2018 WCPS Ramona J. Smith draws in her audience using a boxing analogy and previews her message of "Still Standing."
Put It All Together
Overall, an introduction should be about 10%-15% of the total speech length. So, for a five-minute speech the goal is 30-45 seconds, or for a 15-minute speech, 60-90 seconds. Your goal is to include all of the parts, in order, as concisely as possible. By delivering an effective five-part introduction, you will convince your audience you have something worthwhile to say and they should continue to listen.
Lisa B Marshall is a communications expert who delivers consulting and workshops, the author of Smart Talk and Ace Your Interview, and host of the Public Speaker and Smart Talk podcasts. Learn more by visiting her website.